Everyone feels anxious sometimes, and many can live and function with mild levels of anxiety. But extreme anxiety is different, especially if it’s chronic. It can be so debilitating that it interferes with your ability to participate in normal daily activities.
If you’re having a hard time, we want you to know that behavioral therapies can start helping you work with this experience. Keep reading—we’ll teach you 4 techniques to interrupt extreme anxiety or panic and ground in the moment.
Why extreme anxiety is different
Each body’s anxiety response is different. You may feel a little nervous or sweaty when faced with an explicit stressor like a job interview. Or maybe you experience “free-floating” anxiety, which often feels like a generalized sense of unease without an apparent cause.
But if you have severe anxiety, the symptoms may be so extreme that you feel faint. Or maybe you feel like you’re out of control of your thoughts and bodily functions. Some people describe this physically dissociated state as feeling out of it or being overwhelmed by adrenaline.
If you experience this sort of crippling anxiety, you may experience it as a “flooding” that makes it impossible to think clearly, as well as causing you to feel like you might faint, can’t breathe, or need to flee.
Because of severe anxiety, you may increasingly avoid social situations. This can be especially true if you’ve had experiences with anxiety where you felt humiliated by lack of bodily control. You may worry that your untreated anxiety will get worse over time if you don’t find a way to cope.
With this kind of debilitating anxiety, chronic symptoms can eventually become so disruptive that they interfere with your ability to participate in normal daily activities. Repeated negative experiences of extreme anxiety symptoms can cause you to avoid triggering situations, putting you at risk for agoraphobia and other phobias.
Working with severe anxiety
There are many learnable skills you can use to calm anxiety. Since these do take some time and practice, let’s talk about some immediate approaches to help get you through an experience of extreme anxiety.
One way to ride out the intense surges of anxiety is to prepare yourself in advance. The more you know about anxiety, its purpose, your triggers, and the way your body responds, the more readily you’ll be able to manage when it hits you.
Reading up on anxiety provides understanding. Knowledge alone is calming. For example, when you can understand the link between why you might feel nausea or shortness of breath when anxious, it points you toward solutions and away from panic or feeling out of control.
Calming and grounding techniques
Severe anxiety can be debilitating, but there are tools and techniques to help. You can use these new skills to interrupt the experience of intense anxiety or panic.
Start by practicing these techniques in your daily life. They’ll work best if you use them often. Then, when you’re having a moment of extreme anxiety, you can implement one or more grounding techniques to help you calm your nervous system down.
You can even create a short “menu” of grounding techniques for certain situations so that you know where to turn when the anxiety feels especially intense.
For example, you might benefit from meditation or progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) before bedtime. But if you have less time for grounding, a shorter practice like abdominal breathing or a quick body scan might be more practical.
Try the grounding techniques below and see what works for you. You can also experiment with distress tolerance skills and these physically relaxing exercises that use your body as a way to keep you connected to the present.
1. The 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique
You can use your senses as a quick bodily anchor to establish physical awareness of the moment. This can slow down racing thoughts and help bring you back to the present. It’s especially effective when extreme anxiety causes you to feel “all up in your head,” detached from reality, and like you lack perspective on what’s happening right now.
Here’s how it works: Start by taking a deep, slow breath in for 5 seconds, and let it out slowly for 5 seconds.
- Center your attention on naming 5 things you can see right now. It might be the clock on the wall, the window to your right, a plant or tree you can see through it, the surface underneath your feet, and a jacket draped across a chair.
- Next, recognize 4 things you can feel right now. These can be things like the seat below you, the feel of a pen in your hand, the clothing on your body, and your feet tapping on the floor.
- Then name 3 things that you can hear. Maybe you can hear a car or leaf blower outside, the sound of your refrigerator humming, and the neighbor’s barking dog.
- Identify 2 things you smell. It might be the smell of food cooking and the scent of detergent on your clothes.
- Finally, name 1 thing you can taste. Notice how your mouth tastes, maybe like chewing gum or coffee. It’s okay even if you can’t name or identify the taste with words—just feel into what’s there now.
2. The butterfly hug
In just a few minutes, a butterfly hug can reduce the feeling of overwhelming or flooding panic. It’s a simple, self-administered therapeutic technique you can use to calm the experience of hyper-anxiety.
This practice uses bi-lateral stimulation to help you ground the mind and body in a physically soothing way.
- Start by sitting comfortably or standing up if that feels better for you. Feel your feet planted on the earth and notice the feeling of being grounded through the soles of your feet.
- Cross your arms across your chest so that they intersect at the elbows, hands touching just under your collarbone.
- Continue to take deep breaths in and out and tap each hand. Alternate the movements like a flutter of butterfly wings.
- Keep breathing steadily as you tap each hand and pay attention to your body and present state.
3. Sensory reset
It can also help to try something that can reset your physical experience. You can do something as straightforward as changing your temperature. Try taking a shower or draping a cool towel behind your neck. You can also use the calming pressure from a weighted blanket to divert the anxiety reactions in your body.
A weighted blanket puts your nervous system into a more restful and comforting state. This, in turn, counteracts physical anxiety symptoms, like a rapid heartbeat. For neurodiverse people, weighted blankets reduce the stress caused by excess sensory stimulation while improving focus.
Your body responds to the sensations of a weighted blanket the same way a baby responds to swaddling or being hugged.
If circumstances don’t permit either of the previous examples, try holding something with a soothing or interesting texture. Take some deep breaths as you hold the object. Focus on the sensation of the smooth stone, squishy stress ball, or anything else with interesting tactile features.
4. Get moving
There’s a reason people tap their fingers, pace around, shake their hands, stretch out their necks when feeling nervous. You’ve probably seen videos of performers and athletes. They do things like bouncing up and down on their heels or clapping their hands before a big event.
Physically expending anxious energy is a proven method for re-centering yourself. You can go for a vigorous walk, try a physically engaging workout routine, or dance to an upbeat song. Do any kind of physical activity that feels appropriate for your body.
When to seek medical advice
Has severe, chronic anxiety has made it difficult to live your life and care for yourself? Talk to a medical or mental health professional. It’s never too early to seek help.
If behavioral strategies like the ones we mentioned aren’t helping, it may be time to consider finding a therapist. Many people with extreme anxiety also benefit from non-habit-forming medications that can reduce the anxiety’s intensity.
Visit Lemonaid to consult with a medical professional and see if medication would be a good fit for you.
- Everyone feels anxious occasionally, but extreme anxiety is different.
- Severe anxiety can feel like flooding, leaving you physically and emotionally overwhelmed.
- You can interrupt the experience of intense anxiety or panic with grounding techniques that use your body to anchor you to the present moment.